Development on Hilton Head Island -- how to strike a balance that sparks reinvestment while maintaining the island's natural beauty -- has dominated discussion among five mayoral candidates this election season.
Do you want blighted office buildings or a shiny new university campus?
How about a booming grocery store near where 30-foot-tall oak trees once stood?
Development on Hilton Head Island -- how to strike a balance that sparks reinvestment while maintaining the island's natural beauty -- has dominated discussion among five candidates for mayor this election season.
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Two major projects have become symbols of such development: Shelter Cove Towne Centre and a proposed University of South Carolina Beaufort campus on Office Park Road.
The candidates -- incumbent Drew Laughlin and challengers David Bennett, Joe DuBois, Cork James and Rochelle Williams -- have outlined vastly different positions on the two proposals.
While the hopefuls agree on expanding water- and sewer-system coverage on the north end and -- to some degree -- funding arts programs, the future of redevelopment on Hilton Head has provided the best glimpse into decisions each candidate would make if elected Nov. 4.
Developers replaced the failing Mall at Shelter Cove with a shopping center anchored by holdover tenant Belk and a new Kroger grocery store. A community park and apartments along Broad Creek also are planned.
Kroger opened in 2013 and is raking in money, according to Mark Senn, president of Shelter Cove developer Blanchard & Calhoun Commercial. The supermarket was the company's No. 1 store this summer out of 200 Southeast locations, he said.
But some residents decried the number of trees cut during construction. Others worry the proposed five-story, 400,000-square-foot apartment building would be an eyesore along Broad Creek.
Laughlin, a Hilton Head attorney and 37-year resident, has praised the Shelter Cove redevelopment. By his count, the island has attracted more than $290 million in private reinvestment during his four-year tenure.
The project originally called for several big-box stores. Town Council, however, decided to work with developers to turn it into more than a strip mall, he has said.
To the mayor, development on Hilton Head "has always been a question of balance."
He says people were once angry about the construction of the Cross Island Parkway.
"I think we will view Shelter Cove in the same vein, as something to be proud of in the coming years," he said at a Democratic Club of Beaufort County South of the Broad luncheon this month.
However, Bennett, a developer and chairman of the Planning Commission, calls Shelter Cove a missed opportunity.
In 2012, he and other commission members asked the town to buy Shelter Cove and draft a master plan to define how it would fit on Hilton Head.
Town officials didn't listen, Bennett said.
Later in the year, he voted for zoning changes that helped move the project ahead. He said he did so because the project was better than what could have been constructed on the site. Kroger had the right to build a store three times larger than the one it constructed, he said.
Bennett thought a revamped Island Recreation Center or an entertainment venue could rise on the land. There could have been shops and apartments, too, he said.
"I saw vast potential in that extraordinary location," he said. "I can appreciate that those closest to the development thank Blanchard & Calhoun for taking over an empty mall. But just because it's better than an empty mall, is that really our standard?"
DuBois, a Hilton Head attorney, has railed against the size of the proposed apartments. He connects the center to his overarching campaign theme -- transparency.
He said town officials collaborate with developers and leave residents in the dark.
DuBois ties his theme to Laughlin's involvement in lawsuits against timeshare company Coral Resorts.
DuBois represents timeshare owners in more than 30 lawsuits against the Hilton Head company; Laughlin represents the company's homeowners associations in many of the cases.
"The recurring problem in this community is the lack of response to ongoing fraud," he said Friday. "How are you ever going to get a sense of what is right and wrong when the mayor has a thumb on the balance between developers and residents?"
Laughlin said Friday that he has never used his position as mayor to promote timeshares. He has said he forwards complaints about the company from residents and tourists to town manager Steve Riley.
Williams, a licensed massage therapist and lifelong resident, said the development dollars need to flow to the north end.
"Everyone needs water and sewers," she said. Bennett, DuBois and Laughlin have also called expanding water and sewer coverage a priority.
James, former publisher of monthly music magazine The Rail, is against all development.
"I believe in maintaining this beautiful piece of land that (Sea Pines founder) Charlie Fraser called home," he said. "We shouldn't touch one more blade of grass."
The town would build the campus on a site currently occupied by a number of old office buildings it purchased.
Construction could start in 2016. The campus will offer a hospitality-management degree program and a branch for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which provides continuing-education classes.
The town would pay about $22.5 million to build the campus through a special tax district. The university will help fund the campus, but an exact amount hasn't been determined. Town manager Steve Riley has said the university will likely pay about $2.5 million.
Laughlin said the campus will bring new money and young residents to the island.
Resorts and hotels will hire new employees from the hospitality program. Older residents will benefit from the lifelong learning center, he said. Arts groups could use the facilities.
"I think this project will be transformative," he said Friday.
Bennett has questioned why the project has moved forward without a traffic study of the Sea Pines Circle area.
He said the campus will increase gridlock in the busy corridor. "No large-scale development should proceed until we know the traffic impacts."
DuBois also has called for a traffic study.
He said the campus would greatly increase congestion and wonders if it was properly researched.
"Education is very important, but do the positive effects outweigh the negative ones?" he asked Friday. "Why do we need this? Who stands to profit from this?"
Williams said the town shouldn't spend money on USCB that could be used to help educate native islanders.
"Why should we build a school for people who are going to learn and leave us?" she asked. "There are people here who can't read or write and need our help."
James called the school the "University of South Carolina Hilton Head" and said the island campus was unnecessary because USCB has a campus in Hardeeville.
"I thought that one was doing just fine," he said. "Stop this project. Stop all projects."
Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.